Monday, 8 December 2014

Autumn Book Reviews

Hi all a round up of my book reviews from October and November. You can comment here or by visiting the link to the review on the chat forum where you can also vote for the books if you have read them yourself. The reviews all have a historical flavour and include a story about a firehorse in 19th century USA , an old-fashioned ranching story and an insightful but harrowing rescue story set in 1950s Dublin. 

Blitz by Hetty Burlingame Beatty


This is an American historical pony story. Blitz is a fire-horse who pulls one of the town’s horse drawn fire wagons. He soon becomes the fastest horse in the town. But after a shady businessman causes a fire to claim the insurance money, Blitz and his owner are injured and Blitz loses his nerve. Blitz is sold and ends up with some bad owners but eventually is bought by a kindly doctor and is restored to health and happiness. But can he regain his courage to save a life?


Told mainly from the horse’s viewpoint, this is a ‘Black Beauty-esque’ tale, but better than the average, with the added originality of Blitz’s unusual role as a fire horse. Well-written, at times sad, but overall heart-warming and life affirming. Although like Black Beauty, it demonstrates that Blitz falls on hard times through the greed and scheming of humans, yet it is also shows the goodness of mankind when he is helped by the Burns family. Not too cloyingly sentimental - which considering the subject matter it could have been. There is also a little more pyschological depth in this story compared to the usual book of this type, as it focuses on how Blitz loses his nerve as well as his outward physical comforts. The backdrop of the world of the firehorses and the firemen is fascinating and is the most interesting part of the book. All in all one of the better of the Black Beauty type stories and will especially appeal to those who are interested in history. Unfortunately I haven't come across any other of the author's books yet but I would certainly read more based on the quality of this story.


The Pony Express by Mairin Johnston


Nothing to do with the American Pony Express! This historical pony novel is set in 1950s Dublin and is the story of a young girl’s involvement with a real-life movement to stop the live export of horses from Ireland to the Continent. Young Katy loves ponies and the family own a mare called Amber. One day she witnesses a scene of cruelty involving some ponies and soon finds out the horrific truth about The Pony Express, the name given to the live export for meat of animals in terrible conditions. When Katy finds out that Amber’s mother Dusty is about to become the latest victim of the Express, she resolves to do something about it. In doing so, she also finds her true vocation in life.


The backdrop for the novel is the live export for meat of horses and other animals in 1940 and 50s Ireland. This was big business at the time, with a huge number of the country’s horses and donkeys being bought up by businessmen eager to make a quick profit. In fact so rapid was the turnover of the animals that the business became dubbed ‘The Pony Express.’ Not only were there objections on humane grounds to this practice because of the terrible conditions the animals had to endure, but also Irish farmers who could not use tractors were rapidly running out of working horses as they could not compete with the meat prices. This story is centred upon the real-life attempt to stop this cruel and greedy practice, with the young heroine being caught up in historic events of the time.

This is a thoughtful exploration of an important real life event in the history of animal welfare, rather than a traditional pony story. Although it does a very good job of balancing the story and characters with the history lesson aspect. Mairin Jonston is an author extremely interested in both feminism and social history, so it is not surprising that the book is also a study of the working class Ireland of the time, and in particular a woman’s role. Kate, as well as being involved with the fate of the horses, is also struggling to find an identity in a world where women become either wives or factory workers. She wants something more, to become a vet no less! But although it seems a hopeless dream, her efforts to help the horses ultimately reward her.

Another important theme in the book is that of facing up to sometimes unpleasant reality in order to do something about life’s problems, rather than just hoping someone else will solve them. Her mother advises Kate to forget about the plight of the horses because it will upset her, but Kate instead braves the truth in order to help them.

The story is, unsurprisingly considering its theme, at times quite harrowing, but it is also ultimately uplifting, not only in that so many people are willing to do something to help the cause, but also in the redemption of the unpleasant character Buck. Certainly not a comfort read, but it is an excellent exploration of important (if unsavoury) equine issues. Not really suitable for younger children. Adults and older teenagers will probably get more out of the story.

The book also includes an introduction with information about the history of the real life Pony Express and the efforts to ban it.


Peter's Pinto by Mary and Conrad Buff


This is an American horse story of the ranching/capturing wild horse persuasion written in 1949. Interestingly it is set in the Mormon community of Utah. Also of interest is the fact it was written by a husband and wife team, with hubby mainly doing the illustrating while Mary wrote most of the story content.

Our hero Peter goes to stay on his uncle’s ranch in Utah. There he soon learns to ride and has lots of fun riding around the ranch with his cousin Doug. But he longs for a horse of his own and keeps having dreams about a beautiful pinto stallion called Checkers. Then the children hear rumours about a mysterious wild pinto roaming the hills. When one of the ranch horses goes missing and a hunt for it is organised, Peter and Doug seize the chance to look for the pinto.


Although this is well-written it is in some ways not the most pleasant of reads. The cruel way Checkers is caught and broken in may reflect the norm on a ranch at the time but does not appeal to a horse-lover reading the book now, especially a fan of Monty Roberts and his ethos, such as myself! It is particularly galling as it is portrayed in the book as being the ’right’ way to do it. Another quibble is that the female characters are very much in the background, only fit for making and serving food, which is probably not surprising in a Mormon community, but which I don't think would sit well with most modern female readers! What makes this rather odd is that it was written by a woman, and a well-educated emancipated woman at that. I don't really know where the Mormon angle comes into things as I don't think either Mary or Conrad had any ties with the Mormon community, in fact Conrad was orginally from Switzerland, which is a ways from Utah! In summary this is more of a book for boys who long to be cowboys than for pony lovers, and the now totally hackneyed plot does not make it appeal much either. Very nice illustrations by Mr. Buff however. (Although the cover art is pretty awful).